Iraq Limits Blackwater's Operations

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Wathiq Khuzaie / EPA

Members of the private security firm Blackwater escort U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer to a helicopter.

Iraq's cabinet met Tuesday for roughly one hour and discussed the role of security companies in the wake of a violent incident in Baghdad Sunday when a U.S. convoy protected by Blackwater contractors killed a reported eight Iraqis and wounded others. According to a senior Iraqi official who spoke to TIME, the cabinet decided to uphold a previous decision by the Minister of the Interior to suspend Blackwater's license. According to the senior official, Blackwater will be allowed to continue to operate inside the Green Zone, which includes the U.S. embassy and Iraqi government offices. But "they will not be allowed to leave the Green Zone," said the senior official.

Prime minister Nouri al-Malaiki told the cabinet that the Iraqi government will continue to negotiate with the U.S. about Blackwater's future in country. At the same time, he expressed interest in "reducing and limiting the authority" of all security contractors in Iraq, not just Blackwater, the senior official said. Maliki also ordered a wide-ranging government investigation, including multiple cabinet departments, that will look into the Blackwater incident and the work of security contractors in Iraq in general.

Iraq's apparent decision to move forward with the suspension of Blackwater's license could have serious repercussions for the ability of U.S. diplomats and others to function in Iraq, since they depend heavily on Blackwater and other security companies for their protection. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose State Department depends on Blackwater to protect its Iraq-based staffers, called al-Maliki on Monday to say that the U.S. has launched its own investigation into the matter.

TIME has obtained an incident report prepared by the U.S. government describing the fire fight Sunday. According to the incident report, the skirmish occurred at 12:08 p.m. on Sunday when, "the motorcade was engaged with small arms fire from several locations" as it moved through a neighborhood of west Baghdad. "The team returned fire to several identified targets" before leaving the area. One vehicle engine was hit and disabled by bullets and had to be towed away. A separate convoy arriving to help was "blocked/surrounded by several Iraqi police and Iraqi national guard vehicles and armed personnel," the report says. Then an American helicopter hovered over the traffic circle, as the U.S. convoy departed without casualties. Some reports have said the helicopter also opened fire on Iraqis, but a Blackwater official told TIME that no shots were fired from the air.

Some eyewitnesses said the fighting began after an explosion detonated near the U.S. convoy, but the incident report does not reflect that. The Blackwater official declared that, contrary to some reports from Iraq, "the convoy was violently attacked by armed insurgents, not civilians, and our people did their job, they fired back to defend human life." The official said that "Blackwater is contracted to work in a war zone, its personnel are under frequent fire, and all the rules of engagement permit them to defend themselves."

Blackwater, a security company based in Moyock, North Carolina, has more than 1,000 personnel in Iraq, most protecting senior State Department personnel and others carrying out sensitive work in the country. Founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, the firm is privately held and secretive. Last week U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testified to the Senate that the State Department is overwhelmingly dependent on contractors like Blackwater for its security. As he put it, "There is simply no way at all that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security could ever have enough full-time personnel to staff the security function in Iraq. There is no alternative except through contracts."

Crocker added, "The capability and courage of the individuals who provide security under contract is worthy of respect of all Americans." As an example of the dangers faced by private security personnel in the country, he cited a Blackwater helicopter that crashed in Iraq last Monday. "One of Blackwater's helicopters went down yesterday — a hostile fire incident," the Ambassador said. "Fortunately no one was killed in that accident, but over 30 of our contract security Americans have been killed keeping the rest of us safe." A Blackwater official confirmed Crocker's account of the incident.